Jeff Santosuosso reviews Eleanor Kedney’s ‘Between the Earth and Sky’

‘Between the Earth and Sky’ by Eleanor Kedney
Published by C & R Press
ISBN – 978-1-949540-09-3 $16.00 US

Grieving is an unpredictable, non-linear process. So can be poetry, unpredictable and non-linear. We express ourselves as we must, courting empathy as we can, resigned that our outreach may be insufficient.


Such is the theme of Eleanor Kedney’s new volume of poems, ‘Between the Earth and Sky’. Following her chapbook debut, ‘The Offering’ (Liquid Light Press, 2016), Kedney’s first volume circles around deaths in the family. Just as the speaker’s brother’s death was no unforeseen shock, the treatments hold true, delivering on implications. We see what’s coming, and like grieving, seemingly insignificant and random stimuli resurrect the grief. She opens the work with a preface poem, ‘Harmonica,’ where her theme cannot be more obvious:


‘When it was clear my brother
wouldn’t kick his drug addiction ‘


To begin Section One, ‘After a Death, I Take a Walk,’ she takes solace in reflection of her deep pains. She prepares us in ways she herself may have lacked. The closing piece in Section One, upon which the volume is also named, chills us with this stark image: ‘Methadone clinics are unmarked gray buildings between the earth and sky.’ Anonymous, unsung, purgatories between addiction and recovery, where the body struggles for release, be it to recovery or death.


Kedney often constructs her poems with a personal, tangible episode followed by a thoughtful, universal observation. This resonates more empathetically than mere induction. In this way, the influence of Jack Gilbert and Kamiko Hahn light up the work.


The book opens and closes with a birdsong. The aforementioned ‘After a Death, I Take a Walk’ awakens the speaker as ‘the cactus wren trumpets / ‘Come here, dear, come here.’’ The speaker is trying to heal, attentive to the soothing natural world and its order. The volume closes with a stillness of panorama, not a snapshot but a world in hush. She breathes deeply, filled with hope and some quiet reconciliation. ‘The rain stops / and birds collect in high branches and break into song.’


Father and mother both die amid this collection, too. These deaths haunt the speaker. ‘The Study of Rivers’ projects the kaleidoscope of emotions, a futile cat herding. Grappling with what might be considered resentment, the speaker’s intensity approaches shame. It feels overwhelming. Kedney admits her ‘hatred for a brother … the relief I felt when he died’ over valuables and their lasting symbolism of something more personal that he stole from her to fund his self-destruction. She stands ‘between stones a rill where water slows, beyond / turbulence.’ There is the key, the turn. Here’s a primary example of her inductive technique, an artistic resolution:


‘A river flows toward another body
of water, sometimes never reaches one,

ends its course in the ground.’


Those line breaks inform us. Her intent is to join by separating, a theme of the entire work.


Section Two’s camera pulls the pensive speaker further out, in this case with a gull. The aptly-named ‘Postcards’ brings us tiny clues to tell a story, to enliven her father, as brief as the correspondence, yet all that is provided in such a small space. In ‘Shades,’ the speaker’s mother buries four brothers and sisters by the time she’s 16. Her mother sits by the TV ‘The white shades marked amber by nicotine, / thin and papery as moth wings.’


In ‘What We Didn’t Say,’ the family copes by ignoring the obvious, seeking an external cause for mother’s decline, when it’s been clearly internal all along. Kedney’s speaker is bedside at mother’s passing, hoping for some type of reincarnation in ‘Desert Spiny Lizard.’ She feels the burden of survival heaped upon her in ‘Living Legacy.’ Named the ‘legacy holder,’ she arrives upon deep emptiness amid the void created ‘because all echoes cease.’ That is one ominous burden.


Section Three focuses on the speaker’s internal struggle. Divergence has led to convergence, the scattered pains gathered up for a reckoning. An inanimate world surrounds her: a glove, a park bench, a stove. Yet within these lifeless forms, she discovers her own heart. She turns to the natural world, speaking of plums, honeysuckles, sunflowers, the Rio Grande.


But things are not so simple. ‘Ajoite in Quartz’ brings us her brother’s virtue and vice. ‘A Jar with a Lid,’ another signal metaphor, explains that ‘Glass unto itself is true … / it’s solid and liquid, and neither.’ The marvel unfolds, as Kedney concludes with ‘Some say … the empty jar is full.’ She is on her way to wisdom, though it remains a long, circuitous route. ‘Sunrise’ reminds us with Shoshone insight that we should venerate the sun because ‘Each thing in nature does.’ We see a washed-out sky, this time ‘empty of wings’ in ‘Loss,’ quickly revisited at the conclusion of ‘Rio Grande.’ Geese take flight, ‘synchronized wingbeats: a draft of leaving.’ The speaker mourns again in ‘Bumper Sticker,’ then glides to calm in ‘Tandem Bicycle.’ Wisdom and peace cannot be more clear than in ‘My Amazed Self That Sings,’ a subdued ascent, a speaker at peace, even if only briefly, ‘Air and ocean in hand.’


As the work concludes, Kedney confirms the inductive pattern as ‘Famous Rivers’ takes us around the world, only to land in a deeply personal one. One more step forward, a series of affirmations are brought on by marital devotion in ‘What We Do.’ Promises are kept; empathy comes alive in nature. ‘Drop Leaf Table’ adeptly transitions from the still to the moving, but a centering. The speaker is reminded of a lake ‘always moving from the center of itself.’ She’s gaining strength. That clarity echoes in ‘A Metal Folding Chair in the San Pedro Riverbed,’ as her speaker takes pride in capturing it in a photograph: ‘I shot a still life of it put to rest.’


The parry and thrust of grieving do not relent in ‘Eclipse over the Snake River,’ while in ‘Believing Is Seeing’ she affirms that ‘asking for what is needed is an acceptance.’  Just when we think the emotional skies have cleared, grief darkens again in ‘Childhood.’ Her family has returned, though with stoicism she finds that thin line where resignation and resolution meet. Once more from the external and present natural world, she finds wisdom in the internal world of the past:


‘… we find each other and howl,
full throttle, singing the way children sing

before they learn not to.’


‘Deltas’ is the key piece of this section, providing names for intersections of bodies of water, natural flows as they meet. While the echoes of the speaker’s brother’s plight reverberate in a friend’s comment, she describes the arcuate, where there’s ‘so much / tides can’t carry away.’ The arrival, the return home is nicely captured in ‘Home,’ as she pronounces, ‘for the first time I let myself love a place.’ There she has placed herself, having wandered, stumbled, circled back, determined to press on, and in ‘The View,’ she asserts herself with peace:


‘A moment passes. Then the next. The rain stops
and birds collect in high branches and break into song.’